The Perils of Plan Mexico


I have been a political analyst and writer in Mexico for the past two decades. I’m also a mother faced with the challenge of raising children there. As a human rights advocate and a mother, today I speak to you, frankly, with a great sense of urgency.

Mexico is the United States’ closest Latin American neighbor and yet most U.S. citizens receive little reliable information about what is happening within the country. Instead, Mexico and Mexicans are often demonized in the U.S. press. The single biggest reason for this is the way that the entire binational relationship has been recast in terms of security over the past few years.

From a neighbor and a trade partner, Mexico has been portrayed as a threat to U.S. national security. Immigrants are no longer immigrants, but criminals, “removable aliens,” and even potential terrorists. Latinos, mostly Mexicans, are now the largest group of victims of hate crimes in the United States.

Although Mexico-bashing has been a favorite sport of the right for years, this terrible conversion of Mexico, from an ally to a “failed state” and narco-haven in the media and policy circles, began in earnest under the Bush administration and has only intensified since then. The Merida Initiative and the militarization of Mexico are the direct outgrowth of the national security framework imposed on bilateral relations.

There is a misconception that the Merida Initiative, named after a meeting between Presidents Calderon and Bush in the city of Merida, originated when Calderon requested assistance in the drug war from the U.S. government. The U.S. government, this story goes, agreed to comply. When the U.S. government cited its share of responsibility in the transnational drug trade as the world’s largest market, pundits heralded the admission as unprecedented and a new step in binational cooperation.

This is largely myth. In fact, Plan Mexico—as it was first called—has its roots in the Security and Prosperity Partnership that grew out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the regional trade agreement was expanded into a security agreement, the Bush administration sought a means to extend its national security doctrine to its regional trade partners. This meant that both Canada and Mexico were to assume counter-terrorism activities (despite the absence of international terrorism threats in those nations), border security (in Mexico’s case, to control Central American migrants), and protection of strategic resources and investments. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon called it “arming NAFTA.”

The Bush announcement of the three-year Merida Initiative in October of 2007 extended U.S. military intervention in Mexico from this base. The plan is dubbed a “counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, and border security initiative” although it’s the war on drugs that has received the most attention. Although U.S. troops cannot operate by law in Mexican territory, the plan significantly increases the presence of U.S. agents and intelligence services, now estimated at 1,400, and of U.S. private security companies throughout Mexico.

The terms of the Merida Initiative sends the full $1.3 billion appropriated so far to U.S. defense, security, information technology and other private-sector firms, and the U.S. government. One hundred percent of the money stays in the United States since the plan prohibits cash payments to Mexico.

In other words, what it does is ensure an expanding market for defense and security contracts, in an undeclared war that has no exit strategy in sight.

Does this sound familiar?

It’s important to note that despite obvious threats to Mexican sovereignty, the Calderon government lobbied actively for the Merida Initiative, balking only at certain human rights conditions. There is a reason for Calderon’s enthusiasm, which has to do with this particular moment in Mexico’s fragile democracy.

Recall that Felipe Calderon took office after courts proclaimed he had won the elections by half a percentage point. The courts blocked a demand for a full recount, despite evidence of irregularities and the narrow margin. The elections decision enraged an already divided populace and failed to resolve accusations of fraud.

The military had enabled Calderon to take office by physically escorting him into a Congress occupied by protestors and placing the presidential banner over his shoulder. The country was in the throes of massive protests involving at least half the populace.

Once in office, Calderon launched the war on drugs. This strategy allowed a weak president with little popular legitimacy to cement his power, based on building an alliance with the armed forces under a militarized counternarcotics model.

The war on drugs model created an external enemy to distract from the internal protests and division. With its focus on interdiction and supply-side enforcement, the model was originally developed by President Richard Nixon in the 70s to increase presidential power, by taking counternarcotics efforts out of the hands of communities, where it was treated largely as a community health issue, and placing it in the hands of the executive, where it was treated as a security issue.

Applied in Mexico, the immediate effect was to send more than 45,000 army troops into Mexican communities. The presence of the army in all aspects of public security is now the major cause of the grave increase in human rights violations and drug-related violence in Mexico.

The militarization of Mexico has led to a steep increase in homicides related to the drug war. It has led to rape and abuse of women by soldiers in communities throughout the country. Human rights complaints against the armed forces have increased six-fold.

Even these stark figures do not reflect the seriousness of what is happening in Mexican society. Many abuses are not reported at all for the simple reason that there is no assurance that justice will be done. The Mexican Armed Forces are not subject to civilian justice systems, but to their own military tribunals. These very rarely terminate in convictions. Of scores of reported torture cases, for example, not a single case has been prosecuted by the army in recent years.

The situation with the police and civilian court system is not much better. Corruption is rampant due to the immense economic power of the drug cartels. Local and state police, the political system, and the justice system are so highly infiltrated and controlled by the cartels that in most cases it is impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

The militarization of Mexico has also led to what rights groups call “the criminalization of protest.” Peasant and indigenous leaders have been framed under drug charges and communities harassed by the military with the pretext of the drug war. In Operation Chihuahua, one of the first military operations to replace local police forces and occupy whole towns, among the first people picked up were grassroots leaders—not on drug charges but on three-year old warrants for leading anti-NAFTA protests. Recently, grassroots organizations opposing transnational mining operations in the Sierra Madre cited a sharp increase in militarization that they link to the Merida Initiative and the NAFTA-SPP aimed at opening up natural resources to transnational investment.

All this—the human rights abuses, impunity, corruption, criminalization of the opposition—would be grave cause for concern under any conditions. What is truly incomprehensible is that in addition to generating these costs to Mexican society, the war on drugs doesn’t work to achieve its own stated objectives.

We know this not only from the relatively recent Mexican experience, but from other places— especially Colombia and the Andean region. As Plan Colombia goes into its tenth year, the cost of drugs on U.S. streets has gone down and regional production has risen. In Mexico, interdictions dropped between 2007 and 2008. The number of arrests went up but seems to have little effect on the hydra-headed cartels. Actual indictment and prosecution rates following arrests are suspiciously not reported. Illegal drug flows to the U.S. market appear to be unaffected overall.

The U.S. Role

To understand the U.S. role in this mess, it’s necessary to step back a moment. There is no question that the power of organized crime in Mexico is real. There is also no question that the current approach to combating it is a disaster in its effects on human rights and democracy, and a quagmire in strategic terms.

In this context, the question is why, particularly now that George Bush is out of office, would the U.S. government continue to concentrate its aid to Mexico in a way that demonstrably empowers corrupt security forces, violates Mexican human rights, and leads to an increase in violence? This is a huge mistake with extremely high costs.

At a time when Mexico faces one of its worst economic crises in history, U.S. foreign policy toward our neighbor to the south reduces one of our most important and complex bilateral relations to miscast and failed security cooperation under a discredited war on drugs model. We know that there are powerful economic and political interests behind creating a war front in Mexico. But we also know that we too can have a powerful voice. The question is how?

Many U.S. citizen groups have been grappling with that issue. The effort to place human rights conditions on the military-police aid package to Mexico turned out to be counterproductive. The original conditions withheld 15% of some Merida Initiative aid pending progress on the prohibition against torture—a common practice by Mexican security forces to punish community leaders and extract confessions, consultation with human rights groups, transparency, and committing the army to civilian courts where permitted under law. None of that happened in a real way.

Nevertheless, the State Department recently sent a human rights report to Congress showing that the Mexican government had not made significant progress on conditions, while asking Congress to release the funds on the basis of good intentions. Congress promptly complied.

For this reason, our organization and many other U.S. and Mexican groups are calling for a halt to Plan Mexico as the three-year cycle closes. The Obama administration has pledged to continue military funding to Mexico and Central America under the plan, but we believe that a thorough analysis of the results and consequences will demonstrate the need for a more integral and effective aid strategy and help us chart a binational relationship focused on peaceful cooperation and community-building.

We are not alone in demanding that the war on drugs model be replaced.

In Mexico, recent polls show that the majority of the population has lost faith in the drug war model. Last May, 52 Mexican human rights organizations called for an end to military aid to their government under the Merida Initiative. Their letter reads:

“We respectfully request that the U.S. Congress and Department of State, in both the Merida Initiative as in other programs to support public security in Mexico, does not allocate funds or direct programs to the armed forces …

“We urge the United States to consider ways to support a holistic response to security problems; based on tackling the root causes of violence and ensuring the full respect of human rights; not on the logic of combat.”

In the United States, the AFL-CIO has come out against the Merida Initiative, in part as a protest against the violation of labor rights particularly in the case of the mining union but also as a rejection of the drug war model. U.S. labor took this position even before Calderon used the army last week to wipe out Mexico’s oldest union and throw 45,000 unionized workers out of jobs overnight. The drug war facilitated the use of the army to take over the state-owned company’s installations.

The 1.7 million-person Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, non-governmental organizations including CIP Americas Program and Global Exchange, religious organizations including Witness for Peace, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, and Tikkun, and grassroots activist organizations like the Latin America Solidarity Coalition, Alliance for Democracy, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, and Friends of Brad Will have all called for U.S. citizens to oppose the plan and redirect aid to Mexico to health and development programs.

The immediate change needed is relatively simple, although the situation is not. The U.S. government should:

1) Understand shared responsibility in the transnational drug war not as intervention into Mexican security issues but as assuming its own responsibilities in reducing demand, increasing health services, and attacking corruption within its borders. Much public funding and political commitment is needed here, as well as a serious search for models to replace the failed drug war.

2) The U.S. government must rechannel harmful security aid to Mexico into development and anti-crisis aid that will address the root factors that have led to the expansion of drug consumption and trafficking in Mexico. Proposals for this type of aid have already been presented before Congress.

Militarization is not the way to deal with Mexico’s political crisis and infusing government money into industries based on blood is not the way to deal with the U.S. economic crisis.

Mexico should be a U.S. priority. But providing exclusively security-focused equipment and training to Mexico is like pouring gas on a fire.

Citizens in both countries stand to lose by viewing the complex binational relationship through the reductionist lens of national security. Critical issues have fallen from the agenda or receive merely lip service. Among them: trans-border livelihoods in the world’s most integrated borderlands, immigration, regional environmental threats, trade, and a sustainable energy future.

We must return the U.S.-Mexico relationship to the simple equation that a healthy neighbor equals better trade, security, and cultural relations.

A strong and mutually beneficial relationship must cover the full range of issues between the two nations. The Obama administration and Congress must reorient the militarized relationship with Mexico. A new approach must go to the roots of the illegal drug trade by addressing inequality, poverty, employment, and the high costs of prohibitionist policies. Instead of seeking to bolster the Calderon administration, and police and military forces characterized by corruption, we must stand by human rights, democratic institutions, and a strong role for civil society.

LAURA CARLSEN is director of the Americas Policy Program in Mexico City. She can be reached at: (lcarlsen(a)ciponline.org).

This text is a speech presented to the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Oct. 22, 2009.


Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

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